The Original Red Death?! An Antique Victorian Fancy Dress Costume Fit for a Phantom

The perfect outfit for threatening guests at your next Masquerade!

Hello and Happy October, world! This blog began over 5 years ago this month when my very first post went live on October 5th, 2011.

Great Galloping Galoshes, how things have changed!

My blog is now old enough to be trusted with knives, open flames, and witchcraft according to antique greeting cards.
I’m so proud…*sniff*

5 years ago to the day (on October 28th, 2011), I posted a photo of a delightful vintage fancy dress costume in honor of Halloween:

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To pay homage to that anniversary, here’s another amazing fancy dress costume I recently found on eBay: a STUNNING Victorian version of a Tudor gentleman!

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Or perhaps, since this fabulosity hails from France, we should call this a Third Republican version of a Valois/Bourbonic gentleman, but that doesn’t sound quite as romantic…

From the seller’s description:

“This is a complete outfit for a young nobleman of the Renaissance, 5 pieces:
– the doublet, (inner front is padded)
– the breeches [trunk hose]
– the cape
– the hat and
– the scabbard belt”

The original eBay listing can be found here.

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It’s encrusted with faceted jet black glass beads and buttons– an elegant look in full sunlight, but even more decadent and  glittering in the light of gaslamps and candles!
(And I can’t be the only one getting Phantom of the Opera vibes, right…right?!)

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Judging by the colors, shapes, and especially the trims, this handsome outfit likely dates between 1885 and 1895–more likely the latter (that’s when black beaded trim was in vogue and just look at that cape…it screams 1890s!) This fabulous fancy dress costume could have either been worn for one of the many costumed balls popular during the late 19th century, made for a sumptuous Shakespearean spectacle, or donned during an opulent opera. Whatever the event, the costume has survived in superb condition! It is made of, as the seller perfectly put it, “soft red silk satin, the finest lightweight silky clothing velvet, very thin brown and cream polished [cotton] for the inner linings of the doublet and breeches.”

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I do believe the trunk hose are displayed backwards. The buttons probably went in back and the open “butt” was worn in front– filled in with a (now missing) codpiece, of course! Since it’s a Victorian recreation, it probably wouldn’t have been a very exciting codpiece by 16th century standards, though. ;P

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The full list of detailed measurements:

Cape height : 29″ width at top: 17″ width at bottom : 107″ 
Doublet Armpit to armpit : 20″  (chest about 40″) length : 20″ 1/2 collar : 17″ waist flat : 21″ chest flat : 19″ 1/2 
Breeches  waist : 15″ 1/2 to 16″ 1/2 legs opening : 21 ” length : 17 ” 
Hat inside: 21″ 1/2 length: 11″

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Such a miraculously fine bit of fantasy to survive in such condition for 120 years!

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

Click for base image source

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Hat Trick: Instant Edwardian Glamour Using a Wreath and Wide Straw Hat

The title of this post says it all! This is the easiest way to decorate a hat ever—it’s so simple I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t think of it sooner!

I love hats, but for whatever reason, I struggle to decorate them. I can never seem to get the feathers to fluff, flowers to sit just so, or bows to stand properly. However, I was wandering the cavernous aisle of the the local “At Home” (“The-Home-Store-Formerly-Known-as-Garden-Ridge”) looking at Christmas ornaments…in August…during a 105°F heat wave…

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Like Hobby Lobby, At Home always goes Christmas Crazy early. This photo is from an article written in August of last year.

I was looking at the Christmas ornaments and vulturing around the Halloween merch hoping to catch an earlybird sale of some type. Alas, no sales on clip-on Christmas birds yet! I got a whole flock a few years ago and now I always keep my eye out for them. They are perfect for perching on late Victorian hats:

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Deprived of a deep discount on feathery friends, I was about to leave the store when I saw two giant displays of faux flowers. At Home is full of fake greenery, so I had ignored these displays on my way in. However, planted beside the plastic potted petunias was the most glorious seasonal bloom in the whole of the store: the RED LINE CLEARANCE SIGN!

A photo of a treasured red blossom of the 50% off variety.

Redline Clearance in At Home usually means either 20% or 50% off the tag price, but thanks to the brazen commercial exploitation of one of the most beloved holidays of the year and the need to fill the shelves with glitter-crusted burlap Santas before school’s even started, all summer floral was a whopping 75% off! And while I was high on the rush of sudden sales and the heady smell of ten-thousand different air freshener packets from the next display over, I was suddenly struck by the need to buy wreaths wreaths wreaths because FLOWER CROWNS:

I probably could have bought all the wreaths in the world— heaven knows my heart was screaming YAAAS GURL! YAAAS! as I thrust my arms elbow-deep into a glorious pile of polyester roses—but I am strapped for cash and really don’t have any more room to store stuff. So, I settled on a few choice pieces:

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I spent less than $20! It’s a miracle!

I found two wreaths in light, more spring-like colors, and while I was loading them into the cart, I was struck by another sudden epiphany: IF A WREATH FITS ON MY HEAD, IT WILL FIT ON A HAT!

Edwardian hats are huge, drowning in waterfalls of curled ostrich plumes, cascades of silk ribbon, and sprays of flowers. They are opulent to the maximum and, up until my fateful faux flower find, they were well beyond my hat-decorating comfort zone.

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My style is usually a bit more restrained, but looking at the piles of bargain wreaths mounded up like a magical hillside from a fairytale, I knew what needed to be done!

You see, I have this wonderfully wild 1980s straw hat:

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It’s perfectly shaped for 1900-1910, but that zebra crown isn’t the most period-looking finish. So I took one of the wreaths I’d bought on clearance…

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When choosing a wreath, it’s wise to pick one on the fuller side. The more dense/bigger the blooms, the more lush your hat will look (and the better it will hide any *ahem* idiosyncrasies).

…plopped it over the brim to hide the the crown…

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Sushi-roll hat!

…and voilà! An instant Edwardian hat, no millinery skill required!

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There was no agonizing over color scheme, no tedious arranging and rearranging of every single flower, and no waiting! It’s like the Jiffy mix of hats!

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My attempt at an autochrome-esque photo.

Another bonus? Instant restyling options! If you have only one hat, you can just switch the wreath instead of having to get a new hat base. The original full price of the wreath was $15, which is still a bargain if you consider the number of flowers you get for one price and the fact that it came pre-color coordinated!
If you are dedicated to decorating a particular hat, I recommend taking it with you so you can fit the wreath over the crown before buying it. The wreath I fell in love with as a tad too small, but by clipping the wire holding it together, I was able to resize it to fit.

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I used nail clippers and re-tied the ends in place with a stripped twist tie.

If you need to spread the wreath more than an inch or two, you can fill in the gap with a big ribbon bow or a matching bloom. My wreath fits snugly enough that it stays on securely, but if you are happy with your hat and want to keep it just as it is, hot gluing or sewing the wreath in place will keep it from falling off in the wind or when you bend over.

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Edwardian Hat Trick Cost Breakdown:

Wide brimmed straw hat – $4.99, Thrift Town
Floral Wreath – $3.75, At Home (Huzzah for clearance sales!)

Total – $8.74

—– Other Hat Posts ——

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Hat Trick: Turn a Placemat into an 18th Century Hat in Three Steps

Darn string!

Flower Pots and Romanticism: The 10 Second Poke Bonnet

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Update!

Look what I found!

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Her hat looks just like mine!

Vampires, Pointe Shoes, and Pattern Alterations: A Bustle Ball Gown from Simplicity 4156

My “Golden Moonflower” Bustle Dress
Still haven’t settled on an official dress name yet.

I’ve never made a bustle dress from scratch before aside from my Simplicity 3723 bustle hack and a poorly executed (but entertaining) attempt at a Nerfpunk outfit. However, way back in August, I had decided I wanted to attend Dracula: The Ballet with the DFW Costumers Guild, so I purchased a gorgeous sequin-encrusted sari from eBay and decided it was time to try! I wanted something glittery and dark– it was a vampire story after all! I took a cue from one of my favorite dresses in the Met and decided to use Simplicity 4156 as the pattern base since it was handy and I like how it fits me:

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Sari Bustle Dress Design

After a hectic September, October was supposed to be comparatively calm and un-scheduled–free and clear for sewing a few big projects for upcoming DFW Costumers Guild events. However, as a pithy coffee mug once said, “Man plans; God laughs.” So, short on time and motivation, I threw up my hands at trying to attend the ballet with the Guild on the 17th. Of course you are now reading a post about the dress I wore, so SPOILER! I made it!

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A big THANK YOU to Kim and Greg for sharing their box seats with me!

Since I was so busy, I didn’t get a start on my dress until the week before. I’d never made an evening dress before, much less a bustle gown, so I was nervous. Nothing seemed to go my way! As you can see (hopefully, despite my bad watercoloring) in the original design, I wanted an all-black dress in satin and velvet, but I failed to find a satisfactory version of either. Instead, Christopher helped me pick out a lovely gold rayon/poly-whatever blend and a smooth black cotton/nylon blend: perhaps the strangest blend ever, but very simple to sew with and it had a dull sheen I liked.

For the pattern I turned to my trusty Simplicity 4156. While it is originally designed to be an 1890s walking dress with huge puff sleeves, the gored skirt is actually amazingly versatile and, minus the huge sleeves, the bodice is an excellent base for a classic vest-style 1880s bodice. Thanks to a summer of ice cream and days too hot to move, I had to make three mock-ups before I finally got the pattern to fit exactly as I wanted. I felt kinda proud of myself because after I did all the alterations, I found that Francis Grimble’s “Fashions of the Gilded Age” book had lots of helpful fitting advice that I unintentionally followed, particularly the adjustment for the “extra-erect” figure which, honestly, surprised me since I’d always thought of myself as rather hunched (this, as it turns out, is also paradoxically true).

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I did my third mockup in black cotton twill that I miraculously found at Walmart. I used the twill pieces to cut out my fashion fabric and then turned them into the lining. It was a little thick, but the stiffness meant that the bodice stayed smooth without adding boning to the seams. I fitted everything over my Hourglass Attire corset, a single cotton petticoat from Goodwill, my haphazard pink bustle cage (based on American Duchess’s free pattern), and the bum pad draped with a ruffled tablecloth from my Simplicity 3723 bustle project. The sheer weight of all the sequins on the sari combined with the heavy rayon blend was too much for my bustle to handle, so it’s not as booty-licious as I’d like. Still, lots of swish!

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I tried the cage over the bum pad and settled on putting it on the bottom because I needed the extra fluff the ruffles provided.

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I wore my absolute favorite pair of shoes: some 1980s black suede beauties with lace-up fronts. Sadly they are a size too small and falling to pieces.

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For the bustle, I just gathered and draped the back until I liked it. It’s made from a single length of fabric. I used the selvages as the hem and fringed the drape in front instead of hemming it. I was so short on time I even left the bottom of the underskirt unhemmed (it’s pinked).

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I was so rushed I didn’t take many in-progress photos. Honestly, most of it, especially the crossover front, I just wung. The only real in-progress shot I got was when I contemplated making the dress sleeveless with ruffles instead of 3/4 sleeved.

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Alterations I made to Simplicity 4156, an 1890s walking dress, into an 1880s evening gown:

-No balloon sleeves. I used the sleeve pattern from Simplicity 3723, actually. Fave sleeve pattern ever!
-No standing collar or cuffs. Even though I wanted them, I ran out of time.
-No side peplum. Peplums are very 1890s, so I cut down the front, but kept the back to make an 1880s-style bustle tail instead.
-Crossover bodice front.
-Randomly draped bustle.
-“Accidental” V neck.

You’ll notice that in my design and in this photo, the point d’esprit completely fills the neckline. Indeed, I got all the way done sewing on the high collar on Friday only to discover that the neckline pulled too far up so it choked me in front and gaped at the back. I discovered that even though I had to do an extra-erect posture adjustment, my neck angles forward as though I am hunched over.

…pretty much like a vulture’s posture in reverse…

I assumed if I could trim a half inch off the front neckline, I could just re-attached the collar and solve the problem enough to make the dress wearable. Then, the scissors slipped…

..and thus my dress is a V neck!

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 “Golden Moonflower” Costume Breakdown

Spangled silk georgette sari – $24.99
6 yards black cotton/nylon blend – $24.16
5 yards metallic rayon/poly blend – $19.30
2 yard cotton twill – $6.00
2 yards black pointe d’esprit – $8.15
1 spool of black thread – $2.49
Cotton sheet for mockup – Free! (remnants from Amelia’s Edwardian dress)

Dress Total: $85.09

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I bought the woven wire choker necklace on a whim last winter at a local antique mall not quite knowing what on earth I would do with it. Turns out my shopping sub-conscience is psychic! When I had to re-do the neckline, the woven choker filled it in perfectly.

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After having a horrible panic attack about how hideously hair-illiterate I am, Christopher calmed me down and curled my hair for me. Husband of the Year? More like eternity!

Accessories Breakdown:

Black suede shoes – $5.99
Black sheer stockings – $1 (Dollar Tree has amazing socks for costumes!)
Woven wire necklace – $6
Screw back earrings – $3
White faux roses to disguise lack of hair skills- $8.98

Outfit Total: $110.06

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Looking fabulous despite the messy craftroom, angry kitty, and wee morning hours?

PRICELESS!

A Simple Girl’s Victorian Dress from New Look Pattern A6319

I don’t have any kids myself, but after posting about the 1860s child’s dress I found a few months back, I’ve gotten a few questions about making Victorian clothing for children. Usually, my lack of experience with sewing for children leads me to recommend asking someone else, especially if someone is asking for strict historical accuracy. However, I am not one to shy from any project. The 1880s are a popular costuming era thanks in part to lots of recent movies set in the era and the rise of Neo-Victorian fashion. I have a whole bunch of lovely fabric pieces that are too little to complete a full project for myself, but a child sized dress? Certainly!

Children’s dresses in the 1880s were drop-waisted with full or pleated skirts with fairly straight bodices.

Cotton Dress for a Girl Aged 5-7, circa 1886-88

Silk Lace Dress, circa 1885

Wool Dress, circa 1880-90

This basic shape remained popular into the 20th century, especially during the 1920s, 1960s, and the 1980s. I was originally going to use one of the plentiful, adorable 1960s or 80s patterns like these to craft a dress:

 

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This is a bit more 1890s in shape than 1880s. The 1890s saw the bloused front come into fashion full swing.

I just couldn’t settle on a pattern, though, so I just kept collecting them in my favorites on Etsy. Then, I was browsing in the pinnacle of American capitalism (aka Walmart) when I found this pattern:

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New Look A6319: Child’s Bias Dress and Jacket

Cute plaid? Adorable silhouette? Just the right amount of yardage needed? WE HAVE A WINNER!

The skirt construction is two giant circles, so probably not as historically accurate as pleats or gathers, but the amount of flare it creates is impressive.

The silhouette of the New Look pattern, though not perfect, reminded me of this antique dress I’d pinned earlier:

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Child’s Dress, circa 1880-90

I love plaid and it’s pretty darn vintage looking in most cases, plus I had 3 yards of woven green cotton plaid that, though fairly thick, I thought would make a great dress. I also had some other scraps of lace, some ribbon, and a few button options that could work:

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I ended up choosing the cotton net lace and the big, antique square buttons (a gift from my grandmother). Taking a cue from my 1860s child’s dress, I decided to trim the dress with black velvet ribbon, too.

I followed teh pattern directions exactly except for the zipper in back and the sleeves. I left the zipper out since I planned to close it with hooks and eyes instead (though buttons would be a better option). I used the long sleeve pattern from teh jacket portion of the pattern because the heavy plaid was more of a winter weight than a summer weight and long sleeves are more period-appropriate anyway. The shorter sleeve or sleeveless options are a good choice for summer dresses, and perfectly fine for the period:

Queen Regent Maria Cristina of Spain and her daughters, Infantas Maria Teresa and Maria de las Mercedes, late 1880s

I also chose not to cut the bodice on the bias. Yes, diagonal plaid is amazing. I own a few shirts and dresses cut on the bias. The look is lovely, but the way it twists as I move (especially if the stretch heavy favors one direction) drives me nuts. No child will probably ever were this dress, yet I refuse to make an annoyingly twisty bodice!

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The dress went together rather quickly. The hardest part with getting a neat hem on those darn endless circle skirts! Each skirt had a 108″+ hem and there were TWO of them….with curved hems….

Yep, it took about 3 hours to press and sew. Not gonna lie.

Still, the flouncy effect is gorgeous and has great buoyancy that no other type of skirt can give without hoops and petticoats.

The plain dress is pretty on its own, but I wanted to deck it out.Sorry I didn’t get many process shots:

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Attaching the lace to the front

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Planning the velvet trim. I had a hard time choosing where to put the thinner velvet since I only had one spool. I liked the look of the thin velvet along the hem. I would want to make all the hems match, however, and I just don’t have the patience, money, or the masochism to handsew 220 inches of velvet ribbon. Nope, nope, nope! Ultimately, I opted to follow the original dress and just put double lines around the cuffs. I hoped I had enough lace for the cuff, too, but I barely had enough for the front.

Here’s the “finished” dress:

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It’s actually not complete. It doesn’t have a back closure and it still needs a bit more refining (like more black velvet ribbon), but I admit that I probably won’t ever finish trimming it. Yet, I feel accomplished despite not crossing the finish line! It’s a cute, simple pattern with a lot of possibilities for both costumes and modern wear. Multi-tasking patterns are always a welcome bonus for anyone. I still wouldn’t consider myself an expert on sewing for kids. What I hope folks will take from this experiment is the basic principle of silhouettes. You don’t need a specific pattern to approximate or create an interpretation of a historical style. Practice identifying common features and shapes and suddenly you’ll find inspiration in places you would have never thought to look!

Costume Breakdown:

3 yards cotton plaid – $4.50, Walmart
Lace remnant – Free, but there’s about $2.50 worth of lace there
Thin black velvet ribbon – $2.49, Walmart
Thick velvet ribbon for waist – $3.99, Hobby Lobby
Four antique mother of pearl buttons – Free! Thanks, grandma!
Pattern – $2.97, Walmart

Total: $16.45

I don’t know what I’m going to do with this dress yet. I’ll probably just squirrel it away or throw it at some unsuspecting 6 year old at the park like a reject fairy godmother.

Bippity Bobbity BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

A note if you plan to use this pattern for costuming or modern wear:
I followed the pattern instructions for a size/age 5 dress according to the envelope back, which is meant to fit a child with a 23 inch chest. It turned out really huge. I know most modern patterns have tons of ease built in, but, dang! The dress ended up being 26 inches wide–that’s 3 inches of ease in the chest and over 5 inches in the waist! It’s nearly large enough for me to wear as a (cute) top!

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This may partially be due to me cutting it on the grain rather than on the bias. If it was on the bias, it would hang and stretch downwards, slimming it a bit. Kids need room to move, but I think you could probably size down in this pattern, depending on your child, the fabric you choose, and how she likes her clothes to fit.

 

One Pattern to Rule Them All: A Civil War Era Dress Made from Simplicity 3723 (Part 2)

One Pattern to rule them all; One Pattern to make them; One Girl to sew them, and with some changes, fake them!

Autumn Day Dress, circa 1855-60

SO…

After much procrastination, consternation, and perspiration (the sewing room upstairs gets rather toasty), I finished assembling my modified-for-the-1850s Simplicity 3723 day dress!

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Hmmm….not so impressive.

While it looks pretty close to the envelope, if you think it looks a little “off” in that photo, you’d be right! This is a perfect example of how much undergarments matter. Simplicity 3723 is designed to be worn without a corset, but I fitted it over one for a more period look. However, since my corseted measurements and my uncorseted measurements happen to be exactly the same, I decided to take the opportunity to show how important proper undergarments can be. This is what the gown looks like without any petticoats, hoops, or a corset. It looks rather frumpy, doesn’t it?

You’ll also notice that even the pagoda sleeves, while lovely, look a little flat compared to what you’d expect. If you look at period photographs, you’ll notice that some ladies are wearing their wide sleeves alone, but most have fluffy while undersleeves filling out the cuff:

 

Daguerreotype portrait of a Woman, 1849-52
Worn sans undersleeves. Another later example here.

Handtinted Ambrotype of a Woman, circa 1855
Example of undersleeves from right around the time of my dress! Her undersleeves and collar are “Broderie Anglaise” (a type of homemade eyelet that was very fashionable in the 1850s). I like this photo a lot because she looks a bit like me. I even did my hair similarly. We’re history sisters!

Undersleeves, circa 1850-69
These are also decorated with broderie anglaise.

Undersleeves could vary from very fancy to extremely plain. For simplicity (Ha, ha! Jokes.), I chose to go with the latter. Making your own undersleeves is very simple! They are just two tubes of fabric gathered with drawstrings at the top and bottom. I used elastic cord for the drawstring because trying to tie drawstrings on yourself is impossible otherwise. Many undersleeves of the period had drawstring tops, but button cuffs for this very reason. However, I wanted something very quick and easy that anyone could make. By using elastic cord, I can dress myself.

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I just measured the length from above my elbow to my wrist and cut that much off a bolt of 45 inch fabric, which I then cut along the fold, giving me two rectangles of fabric 18″ x 22.5.” This is about as “skinny” of a sleeve you can make. The fuller your dress’ sleeves, the fuller your undersleeves should be.

By 1858, hoop skirts were in full swing. I really want hoops, but right now, I don’t have the cash. Instead, I fit my dress over a cheap bridal petticoat I found in Goodwill for $7, a modest bumroll, and my “post-haste” petticoat.

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Also: sock boobs!
I fitted the dress over a corset, but I didn’t put my corset on my mannequin because she is actually much longer waisted than I am and is nipped in and hard as steel in already!

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My “post-haste” petticoat is just 3 or 4 yards of fabric with a drawstring waistband. it’s post-haste because I made it 20 minutes before an event in a panic! Now it’s been worn with everything from an 18th century dress to 1880s bustles!

So now:

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Thanks in part to the heavy weight of the fabric, the final shape isn’t as defined and full as hoopskirts, but it’s still full enough to be period appropriate, especially for a common country woman. This fullness is actually perfect for 1840s, though! Now I know what to do for that decade when I get around to it.

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The collar is just some soft net lace I had originally bought to make 18th century engageantes. I really wanted to use an antique collar, but I couldn’t find one the right size. This works well enough, though. I am really proud of how the tassels turned out. So much fun!

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I notice a lot of pictures of museum workers standing by Victorian dresses, especially Queen Victoria herself, commenting about how tiny everything is. Well, it’s kind of an optical illusion. My dress looks pretty small compared to me, but that’s mostly thanks to modern clothes which aren’t fitted and cut across the body at the widest point. Also, you can really see just how much wide skirts make your waist look smaller by hiding your legs, which in my case are the skinniest part of my body. By hiding them, the eye re-focuses on the new skinniest place: your waist!

Before I could call my outfit complete, I needed a bonnet! No self-respecting 1850s lady, especially an ol’ married lady such as m’self, would be caught dead outdoors without proper headgear. Simplicity 3723 comes with a fabric sun bonnet pattern that’s pretty cute, but I didn’t want to be cute. I wanted to be petty, tailored, and stately in a modest-sized spoon bonnet that fit fairly close to my head. I also didn’t want to be too matchy-matchy. I had some dark blue ribbon that complimented the jewel tones of my dress and reminded me of this gorgeous bonnet in the National Trust Collections:

Bonnet, circa 1840-50
It’s dated a bit early, but simple enough that it could pass for almost any style between 1840 and 1860.

I used one of the many flower pot baskets out of my TV-intervention-worthy hoard as a base. As a few online tutorials suggested, I took off the top binding and soaked it in hot water for a few hours to try to remove some of the waviness in the brim. The basket straw is much thicker and brittle than hat straw, so I couldn’t get it as flat as I wanted, but slight waviness doesn’t seem to be a issue for these historical ladies:

Ladies of Davenport, Iowa,1863
My bonnet ended up being almost exactly the same shape as the one on the far left. Also: love that lady’s purse!

I rebound the edge with bias tape and in the process discovered that you never, EVER use “Amazing QuickHold” glue. Ever. It smells like skunk, makes the cat flee from the room in disgust, and causes the husband to ask many unflattering questions. It’s formulated to be thin, so it also soaks into fabric, leaving little frosted white patches when it dries. Do not recommend! I learned my lesson and went back to trusty old “craft” glue.

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I would have sewn everything on, but once again the thick straw got in the way– and perhaps no small amount of pure sloth. I really do love my hat baskets, though. They’re really cheap, easy to obtain, and highly entertaining. If I mess one up, I don’t feel as bad as if I had invested in an expensive reproduction bonnet form or even a straw hat. When I found the flower choices at the local craft stores to be rather uninspiring, I made some cockades using this tutorial and added a tassel cut from the dress trim scraps to tie it together without being overly matching:

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Bonnet cost breakdown:

2 yards navy ribbon – $4.75, eBay
2 yards mustard ribbon – $4.75, eBay
Hat basket – $1.59, Goodwill
1/2 yard net lace – $2, Hobby Lobby
2 yards pleated brown ribbon – $4.50, Walmart
Bias tape – $1.98, Walmart

Total: $19.57

Add some second-hand square-toed boots and I was ready to trundle everything out to my graciously obliging mother-in-law’s house for a photoshoot! Here’s everything being worn altogether:

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Dress cost breakdown

6 yards printed cotton – $17.82, Walmart
2 yards burgundy cotton – $5.94, Walmart
4 yards tassel trim – $15.96, Hobby Lobby
1/2 yard net lace – $2, Hobby Lobby
Cotton sheet for flat lining – $1, Thrift Town
Hooks and bars – $1.69, Hobby Lobby
Brown poly-cotton thread – $1.98, Walmart

Total: $46.39

Accessories

Bonnet – $19.57
Bridal Petticoat – $7, Goodwill
Flat, brown leather ankle boots – $29, eBay (Talbots brand)
Collar brooch – Personal collection

Total: $102.50
(a bit spendier than I would have liked, but still cheaper than purchasing one pre-made!)

Aside from the still-too-small petticoat circumference, I’d say my foray into the 1850s was a success!

I think the biggest reason the outfit came together so well stems from the way I approached the project. Sure, I wanted to be a bit ornery and prove you could make something passable out of the barest of materials, but I mostly made this dress for myself, approaching the project as though I was making clothes, not a “costume.” I chose fabric, colors, and trims that I thought looked best on me, not just because they were historically appropriate or pretty on their own and I made sure that I could generally exist in it comfortably without feeling suffocated or weird. A lot of costumes I’ve worn in the past have always felt costumey, so they projected as costumey, too. While taking on a different persona can be fun, if you are historically costuming in general, you are still you, even if you are an accountant in Alabama portraying a fisherman’s wife in 17th century Spain. Naturally, you would wear what “they” would have worn, but you are also the one wearing it, so wear what you would wear, too!

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Many thanks to Becky for allowing me to roam all over the back 40 and helping me take photos!

For construction details and the story behind this dress, check out Part 1.

 HAPPY HALLOWEEN EVERYONE!

One Pattern to Rule Them All: A Civil War Era Dress Made from Simplicity 3723 (Part 1)

One Pattern to rule them all; One Pattern to make them; One Girl to sew them, and with some changes, fake them!

Autumn Day Dress, circa 1855-60

I am not afraid to admit it: I have a not-so-secret love affair with 3723. Buying patterns for each and every specific era can be really expensive considering that patterns run about $15-$25 each. Simplicity patterns are no exception, but stores often run pattern sales for the Big 3 pattern makers. I got my copy of Simplicity 3723 for 99¢ during the Lobby of Hobby’s pattern sale. It’s the catch-all pattern designed to make basic “Pilgrim, “Colonial,” and “Prairie” style dresses using as few pattern pieces as possible, so instead of having to buy a different pattern for each era, you get a whole bunch of options in one. None of them are meticulously historically accurate by any means, but the shapes and styles are very easy to manipulate even for someone as ham-handed as myself.

Simplicity patterns get very little love in the historical costuming community, which is a shame. They may not be historically accurate, but they are readily available and in the case of Simplicity 3723, supremely modifiable– great for fitting practice and flexing your creative muscles! You can literally make a dress from almost any era with just this one pattern and plenty of chutzpah. One of my previous costuming projects involved transforming Simplicity 3723 into something a little more historically accurate for the 18th century:

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My 18th century Lady’s Maid Dress from 2013

And more recently, an 1880s Bustle Dress:

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My 1886 Day Dress from June 2014

Fit First!

 After making the 1886 day dress, I have pretty much refined the pattern to fit my torso properly. Most patterns are drafted for someone between 5′ 4″ and 5′ 8″ with an “average-length” torso and a B-cup bust. Some people are lucky enough to match standard patterns pretty well, but I’m broad shouldered, large-busted, and short-waisted, so no matter what, I always end up altering patterns to fit.
If you’ve ever been disappointed by how your costume looks after you’ve sewn it up exactly like the pattern said to do, it might be because the pattern doesn’t fit you quite like it should. The pattern shapes that come fresh out of the envelope are not absolutes! They are printed on paper not just for economy, but because they are designed to be cut, folded, and reshaped to fit you best. If you’re worried about ruining the original, trace the pattern pieces onto some cheap gift tissue or butcher paper so you can slice, dice, fold, and fiddle without fear. I encourage you to check out the many fitting guides you can find in books and online. For example, I have a simple pattern alteration guide from New Mexico State University saved on my desktop for quick access.

Hint: Pattern guides often leave this little tip out, but most modern patterns have armholes (armscyes) that are too low. Simplicity 3723’s are especially deep. If the armscye is too deep, it will make raising your arms difficult, creating a “bat wing” effect. Instead, the armscye should fit fairly close to your armpit. THIS SIMPLE PATTERN ALTERATION IS LIFE CHANGING! I will admit that I didn’t raise the armscye quite enough on my pattern. I only raised it one inch. On my body, Simplicity’s armscyes needed to be raised at least 2 inches. This handy guide explains how to get the right fit around your arm for an amazing fit every time. If you can get the armscye to fit right, you’ll be surprised how much better the entire bodice will look.

Since I plan to make many dresses out of Simplicity 3723 in the future, once I got the bodice portion to fit me correctly, I transferred the pattern onto some sturdy interfacing so I could use it over and over again without having to worry about ripping/overpinning/finding the cat chewing on the original tissue pattern. Now I have the basic building blocks for a whole wardrobe of fairly easy to make historical outfits!

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Label the new pattern with the original pattern and piece number, any sewing marks, and what alterations you made. Adding a date created and/or the measurements is also helpful. Bodies tend to change over time!

One Pattern to Rule Them All Challenge

The glory of Simplicity 3723 is once you’ve got the bodice to fit, you can make tons of dresses from different eras by just manipulating a few key bits!  So, I decided to challenge myself by making a dress for every major costuming era as a way to stretch my costume budget, encourage more focused research, practice fundamental sewing/patterning skills, and encourage creative thinking (something that can be surprisingly hard in the midst of the unemployment doldrums).  I’ve decide to limit myself to no more than 5 pattern alterations for every project (aside from the ones for basic fit), so if anyone wants to fiddle around with the pattern, they can get similar results.

(These tweaks should also work for Simplicty 3725, which is the children’s version of Simplicity 3723)

The Inspiration

Simplicity 3723 includes a “prairie dress” pattern, View A. It’s based off of American pioneer garb from the mid-19th century mixed with 20th century fitting techniques, producing costumes very similar to those used in the beloved Little House on the Prairie TV series, hence the term “prairie dress.”

“A Christmas They Never Forgot” always made me cry when I was little. Still my favorite!

I’ve steered clear of “Civil War” and other mid-19th century costuming for a long time because, sadly, as one of the most popular reenacting periods, it can get pretty catty and cut-throat when it comes to historical accuracy. There are entire webpages and Facebook groups dedicated to “farb” shaming. In fact, the pejorative term “farb” originated in this particular era of historical reenacting.

Hoops showing? What a Farb!

This particularly strict and sometimes vicious attitude is one of the many ill experiences that caused my teenage self to abandon historical costuming for years. However, that experience (among others) led me to create this blog. Thanks to time, practice, and lots of new, more supportive costuming friends, I decided to give the 1850s a try; after all, my figure is pretty well suited for it! There are plenty of historically accurate patterns for this era out there, but when I confront a challenge, I like to challenge it back.

Simplicity 3723 is most definitely a “farb” dress by reenactor standards, but it was never designed to be perfectly accurate anyway.  The pattern designer, Andrea Schewe, created this pattern specifically with small-scale theater productions in mind that need to clothe lots of actors with few resources. View A  is actually pretty good straight out of the envelope (personal fit issues aside). If you need a mid-19th century dress for a school play, just make it up as directed and add fluffy petticoats for a convincing 1840s-60s character. The one-piece construction is historically appropriate as well as convenient, plus  there’s enough fabric in the skirt to cover a 90-110″ hoop skirt. However, I wanted something a little more distinctive. The 1850s and early 1860s are famous for wide skirts and equally wide sleeves. And, as you probably know by now, I love big sleeves!

There are tons of inspirational photographs and extant garments to choose from, but in my case, the fabric actually came before the dress was even an idea. I found this wild, but utterly perfect quilting cotton at Walmart for just under $3 a yard. It’s part of 2014’s “Circles on Stripes” pattern, which came in blue, green, and brown backgrounds. All the ladies at the fabric counter thought it was pretty ugly, but I chose the brown. At the time, I had no intention of making a Victorian dress, but it gave me the fabric fuzzies inside, so I knew I had to have it! I bought 6 yards.

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I discovered a really nifty thing! If you go onto Walmart’s website, it’s horribly hard to look through their fabric listing, but if you really need extra yardage (as I did), but you’ve exhausted the supply at your local store, the website will actually tell you which stores still have your desired fabric in stock! That way, you don’t have to waste as much time driving store to store looking the hard way.

My particular pattern looks very similar to the ones found in this book of 1860s cotton swatches:

Swatch Book, circa 1863-68

It’s thick, as most quilting cottons are, much thicker than much of the cotton fabric available in the 1850s. In fact, the texture of my cotton fabric is quite close to Victorian dress-weight wool, which, as it turns out, was often printed with wild, bright patterns very similar to Walmart’s quilting fabrics! You can find quite a few photographs of ladies wearing eclectic prints:

Print Dress 1 print dress 2 print dress 3

Women in Print Dresses, circa 1855-65
This set of photographs is from an eBay auction.

Another must for the 1850s besides big bell sleeves is fringe and tassels!

Afternoon Dress, circa 1857
Okay, perhaps not quite so much fringe…

After looking at lots of designs and photos, this was the design I came up with:

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One of the most important aspects of historical costuming is the shape of the waistline. The 1850s was transitional when it came to waistlines. The 1840s had really long, pointed waists and the 1860s were short waisted and rounded. Simplicity 3723 is long waisted with a slight point at the front, making it perfect for late 1840s and early 1850s. I’m naturally short waisted, so when I altered the pattern to fit my body, the waistline became more rounded with a slight dip in the front, pushing it closer to the late 1850s to early 60s.

To get the look I desired, I had to make the following alterations to Simplicity 3723:

(+1 skill point indicates something I’d never done before!)

1. Front Opening – The original dress pattern is made to zip up the back. To make the dress more historically accurate (and so I wouldn’t have mess with sewing in a zipper), I opted to make the bodice close in front with hooks and eyes. To be able to get the dress on, I added an 8″ deep lapped placket to the front of the skirt (+1 skill point!).

2. Dropped Shoulders – 1850s dresses had dropped shoulders, meaning the armscye didn’t sit at the top of the shoulder joint, but further down the arm (+1 skill point!).

3. Period Skirt Finishes – To get the most out of the fullness, I cut the skirt panels out of the full width of the fabric (in my case, 45″). Instead of gathering the waistband of the skirt, I used overlapping knife pleats. Originally, I was going to cartridge pleat it (another period method of fabric control), but after fiddling with it a few days (and ripping out yards of stitching), I decided knife pleating suited my tastes more. If you use 60″ fabric, your skirt can be made even fuller and you’ll probably want to use cartridge pleats to draw in the waistline. To help support the hemline, many Victorian dresses had hem facings between 4-10 inches wide (some even wider). I decided to go with a 5-6 inch wide facing.

4. No Collar – This is a small change. Instead of completing View A with a collar, I just left it off.

5. Pagoda/Bell Sleeves – I redrafted the sleeve pattern because nothing screams 1850s like sleeve swag! (+1 skill point!)

The Pattern

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You only need 5 pattern pieces to make an 1850s dress!
If you haven’t worked with this pattern before, measure yourself wearing your undergarments of choice (especially if you plan to wear a corset) and choose the closest pattern size to your measurements. I recommend choosing a pattern size according to your bust measure, but generally speaking, this pattern is pretty true to size with a good amount of ease (2.5 inches in the bust) built in for the average, active wearer. As I mentioned previously, I performed basic pattern alterations to make sure the bodice pieces, mainly bodices pieces 1 and 2, fit my body. Buy some cheap fabric, second hand sheets work perfectly, and make a mock-up of the pattern to gauge where you’ll need to make changes to the pattern, if any.

Many 1850s dress have very low dropped shoulders. I have wide enough shoulders as it is, so I find dropping the sleeves to be a bit unflattering. I decided to drop the sleeve only two inches, which I achieved by adding to the shoulder of my pattern:

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This is only an inches worth of drop which I tried for my first mock-up. I later extended it to two inches. Sadly, I didn’t get many action shots of this dress’s progress, for which I apologize!

The only other major change to the pattern pieces was turning the straight sleeve into a pagoda sleeve. I wanted a nice, fairly fitted upper with a generous lower bell that ended above my wrist, so I took the long sleeve pattern from View A and marked where the elbow was (this is where the flare would begin) and where I wanted the sleeve to end. Then I drew a gentle curve out about 3 inches between the two points. This hastily-drawn image explains it much better than I can:

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It doesn’t take very much extra flare to make a really full sleeve. For extremely wide sleeves, you can begin the curve above the elbow almost at the shoulder line. I had to make a few mockups before I got a curve I liked.

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Too much curve! This is what happens when the angle of your curve is too sharp and too wide.

Cutting

For a front closure, I needed two separate halves instead of a single piece. So instead of placing the bodice front piece on the fold, I placed it on the selvedge. Make sure your skirt panels are the right length (remember that you may need to add some extra length if you are using hoops larger than about 100 inches) and to cut them the full width of the fabric if you are using 45″ fabric to get maximum volume. Otherwise, follow the cutting directions provided by the pattern. I also had to account for extra yardage for my sexy new, voluminous sleeves (about 2/3 yard extra). I flat lined my bodice using a thrifted cotton sheet. Sage advice: Flat line all your Victorian bodices. It’s not only period correct, it also makes  taking things in and letting them out so much easier!

???????????????????????????????I cut 6 inch wide strips of fabric across the width (45 inches) of my fabric and sewed them together to create the hem facing. For the front placket, I cut a bias-cut rectangle twice as long as the opening and about 2 inches wide.

Assembly

Assemble according to envelope, but instead of inserting a zipper in the back, sew the two back pieces together and leave the bodice front open for hooks and eyes. I added a modesty placket so if there is any gapping, it will be much less noticeable. Since that created an overlapping closure, I used bars instead of eyes:

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Modesty placket

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Front opening

To make the placket for the front opening, I followed this surprisingly simple tutorial from Sense and Sensibility patterns for a slash/lapped placket:

I bag-lined the sleeves with some cranberry cotton, using the scraps to make some pinked-edged ruffle trim for the sleeves. After everything was assembled, I sewed on some showgirl-worthy tassels. You’ll notice that my original drawing had a square design on the bodice. On paper and my dress form, a square looks great! On me….not so much. So I took inspiration from this dress (really, its the pelerine, but it counts!) and went for a much more flattering  sweetheart design.

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Obligatory “Kitty Helper” picture!

 So after, two months and three sewing machine needles later (don’t ask), was my 1850s dress successful?

Find out in Part 2!

Pinterest Alert: Have You Pinned These? Double Check Your Sources!

There’s a Tear in the Fabric of Time!

This is an FYI for all my fellow Renaissance researchers, costumers, and most importantly, Pinterest pinners!

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“EUROPE’S BRIDE Margaretha von Valois” from The Lost Gallery on Flickr

There is a series of portraits making the Pinterest rounds labelled “Marguerite de Valois” or “Margaretha von Valois, 1572” that, though they may bear a resemblance to other portraits of Margaret of Valois, are actually modern Photoshop artworks by The Lost Gallery and others. They are NOT genuine 16th century portraits, but you may recognize bits and pieces of them taken from other real, period portraits that make them very convincing at first glance. For example, in many of the modern images, the pose and dress are from the iconic “Portrait of a Young Lady Aged 21, Possibly Helena von Snakenborg:”

The portrait above is a genuine portrait from the 16th century.

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This is another clever Photoshop piece entitled “DEGAGEZ! Marguerite de Valois” from the Lost Gallery. You can see that the bodice was taken directly from the previous portrait.

A seasoned Photoshop artist or research veteran who’s stared at hundred if not thousands of period portraits will notice telltale flaws after a moment of looking. Yet, for the general layperson or even an avid history lover, some of these “paintings” are well done enough to sneak their way onto historical portrait Pinterest boards and Facebook posts. These are just two variations of the portrait; there are many others!
They are actually quite creative, but they are not good for use as historical sources. Indeed, they are quite fun as an exercise in historical plausibility. They are clearly convincing enough even with some obvious incongruities, and prove that, if you are not looking for a strict reenactment outfit and directly copying a particular portrait isn’t your cup of tea, you could take the sleeves off of one dress, the hat off another, and put it all together with still another bodice and produce a very rich, pleasing outfit (kind of like Steampunk taking bits of different Victorian styles and mashing it up with modern or all the Elizabethan-fantasy mash-ups worn to renaissance faires. Tudorgoth/Ruffpunk, anyone?).
Still, always double-check your sources for things you find on the internet, especially Facebook and Pinterest where false information can spread more quickly than the truth!

These modern Photoshop portraits aren’t the only pin masquerading as authentic.

Another mis-pin is this stunning art piece by Rozanne Hawksley, which is often mislabeled and subsequently re-pinned as one of Queen Elizabeth I’s gloves:

Et ne non inducas (And lead us not) by Rozanne Hawksley, created 1987 – 1989

In reality, it’s a beautiful piece of modern art made to imitate gloves of the Elizabethan era with a touch of dark imagery in the form of memento mori symbolism. The artist certainly succeeded in creating the look and feel of a true antique masterpiece!
Artwork seems to be a common source of misidentification, usually because people re-pin pictures without checking the source or giving an artist credit. Another art piece that often appears on Renaissance-era boards is this modern chopine by Susan Taber Avila:

“Pink Chopine” by Susan Taber Avila, circa 2006

To a researcher’s eye, it’s obviously a modern re-imagining of a 16th century Venetian chopine, but since most of the pins of this image do not link back to the artist’s website or even the original image url, the source is completely missing from most pins. Somewhere along the way, this art piece was tagged 1600s 1700s chopine (likely noting the style influence of the piece). After that, people searched for 1600s chopine, this image popped up, and it was repinned without a second thought. Pinterest’s page is a screen full of many small photos surrounded by many other similar photos, making it very easy to simply re-pin something and move on without expanding the file or double-checking the source. In addition, the Pinterest search function only scans keywords in the description and tags, not the source material for the image, so even if you are interested in this artwork as a fiber arts piece, you will have a tough time finding the artist! Clicking on an image never guarantees that you will be taken to the primary source of the image. Pictures can be pinned from anywhere on the web and often have been filtered through two or three websites prior to being added to Pinterest’s archives. It can be a wild goose chase to track the original information down!

Movie costumes are another source of confusion, including this spectacular Rengecy dress that has been making the rounds as the real deal, but is actually a costume from the film “Immortal Beloved,” a period drama with many beautiful costumes:

“Immortal Beloved” costume design by Maurizio Millenotti, circa 1994

Immortal-Beloved-25466_3The dress being worn by Valeria Golino as Giulietta Guicciardi during the film.

Fashion works in cycles: what’s old eventually becomes new again! In the case of this dress by George Halley, the opposite happened. I don’t know who first found this pinned as a Regency dress, but it took off. Though it has a high waist and square neck like a classic Regency gown, is actually from 1967!

George Halley Evening dress (nylon, silk, glass, metallic thread, plastic), circa 1967

There are lots of 1960s dresses that are great a mimicking a Regency silhouette (there are also 1960s gowns that look like they are from 1906 and even some gowns from 1906 that look like they came from 1806, so always check the source and your garments carefully). Once again, spreading misinformation is bad, but there is some good to be had out of it. If you happen to have a 1960s dress that happens to look like a Regency dress, voila! Instant costume!

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GUILTY!